Monday, June 22, 2015

A Spectrum of Highs and Lows in College, The Rocky Start

I recently participated in a University of California study about autistic people who went to college and/or graduate school. In that study, I was asked about where I went, what my living situation was, my social life, and the best and hardest parts of my years in higher academia. Prior to then, I had looked back on my undergraduate years with a fondness and nostalgia of time well-spent. But when forced to be completely honest with a stranger, I realized it had been far more difficult and trying than I had thought it to be.

Truth be told, being autistic and in college is incredibly tough. But if there's anything I learned, it's not impossible and can have some real benefits. So as my overall career in academia comes to a close, let me describe my college life over a series of posts.

While it doesn't seem like there's an upside to learning you're autistic long after your diagnosis, not knowing meant that I never believed I couldn't have a fairly "normal" life. I didn't think that there wasn't anything I couldn't do if I put my mind to it. And a "normal" life meant that I could go to college, specifically a four-year university program, right out of high school. And being someone who took to academia well, it didn't seem like an unrealistic goal.

I prepared myself as best as I could for what I thought was to come. I took honors and AP classes and applied myself as best as I could. I threw myself into extracurriculars like marching band, orchestra, theater, and my temple's youth group and actually had fun with them. I challenged myself to apply to as many schools as I thought I was qualified for. And while I got more rejections than I would've liked, I ended up getting into four schools.

I was excited for college. I was eager to engage in higher learning and live away from my parents. I had chosen to go to school in northern California - seven hundred miles away from home - and felt that the change of scenery would help me become independent. And I was optimistic that I would have a full social life beyond the confines of high school, especially since I got into a special honors program for my mandated college writing class and would be living among others in that same program.

Needless to say, it was much harder than I thought it'd be. Especially in the first year.

My first three weeks were rough and almost destroyed my college career. While I really liked my classmates in the honors program, I had a hard time with the professor leading the program. It was particularly hard to hear her critique my work and my sensitivities to it showed. This led to a meltdown severe enough that I was placed on a six-month medical leave. I can't find the appropriate words to express how upset I was - it was if someone had pulled a rug out from under me that had just been placed there. I spent the leave bitter, angry, and in a perpetual funk that no one had trusted me to have the great college experience I was entitled to.

That being said, being put on medical leave was a better option than what I could've had. When I had that meltdown, my parents drove up to help settle the ruffled feathers. I hadn't told the school about being autistic. The first thing my parents did was inform the dean and housing coordinator about it. They then spent almost an entire day in meetings with the dean to talk about the situation and managed to talk them out of expelling me. It took a lot of negotiation to get them to agree on the medical leave with the ability to return to school once I had medical leave to do so. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I can't deny that I'd be unhappier if it weren't for that intervention.

Despite said bitterness and funk, I didn't want to waste those six months doing nothing. Doing nothing would only make me more bitter and I was gonna have my college career no matter what stood in my way. As my family lives within walking distance of a university partnered with my primary school, I took advantage of the connection. I enrolled in history, statistics, and French classes to keep myself intellectually engaged. And with some assistance in the search, in three months I had moved into an apartment with three roommates to test my independent living skills.

I was fine academically - I never needed much help aside from the odd reminder to do homework I wasn't particularly keen on (mainly in math classes). Most of my high school friends still lived in Los Angeles, so I could keep up something of a social life. But independent living was the real challenge - if I could deal with roommates and take care of myself without parental reliance I could prove to everyone that I could make it seven hundred miles away. And that experience was largely fine - I got along with my roommates and felt just a little more comfortable with not living at home.

Once I went back to up north, I stayed in school for the next three and a half years. And even with some greater challenges on the horizon, I couldn't be prouder.

(To Be Continued)

EDIT: I want to acknowledge that I wasn't completely alone in doing what I did in those precarious six months. My parents were instrumental in finding me a place to live for the second quarter of school and ensuring that I was able to pay for rent and other necessities. I may have moved out, but they assisted me in the process. The apartment I moved into was also close enough to home where the could check up on me if I was having any trouble (which they frequently did).

I also want to say that I didn't exactly overcome my unhappiness during my medical leave. I was angry, depressed, and generally morose the entire time. It got to the point where I had a meltdown bad enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room (a few days I was meant to move out nonetheless). I don't remember any other similar incidents but I still felt bitter the entire time. The fact they even let me move out was a giant leap of faith on their part and I'm glad it paid off. That support was crucial to my overall growth.

1 comment:

  1. You make a good point that more college-bound teens on the spectrum need to know: namely, that their choice of a college destination needs to take into account their own particular strengths and limitations. Like you, I had a rough transition to college as an autistic, though it sounds like you had more support in getting through it than I did. I grew up in the 80's and attended college in the early 90's, when most people had never even heard of Asperger’s. Though I fit the profile of an Aspie largely to a tee and was dysfunctional in a number of ways in high school, nobody showed much concern about the latter fact or tried to guide me since, back then, you were considered “OK” if you were earning high grades in school (and I was ranked at the top of my high school class). Plus, my family was, as a whole, even more dysfunctional than I, and so they weren’t much of a constructive or guiding influence either. At any rate, I chose a university three states away since I wanted to move far away from home, and I won a merit scholarship to go there. The problem was that, in terms of social ability and executive function, I just wasn’t ready to be living mostly “on my own”, in a dorm with roommates whom I didn’t know and didn’t really “get” how to interact with, etc. The result was that I did a lot of things to turn other people off to me, I put myself in a number of bad situations without realizing it, and I ended up with a very deep “frantic loneliness”. I survived there and got my degree, but I was also quite “battered” in a number of ways. Now, as a high school teacher in California, I have become something of a mentor to our students on the spectrum (my students know I’m autistic, as I “came out” to them and to my administration), and I try to guide them a bit towards college and life choices that take into account their autism, so that they don’t just blindly sign on with the “highest-ranking” college that they get into, which is what their counselors tend to advise. Sometimes, staying in town and going to Fresno State is better than going to UC-Berkeley if one simply isn’t ready yet for moving to the Bay Area, living on one’s own right away, etc. The advantage that these kids have is that they know they’re autistic. I didn’t know that about myself until I was well into adulthood, with autistic children of my own through whom I learned about myself.